Encountering Contemporaneity by Consolidating Differences
Jihyun Lee’s World of Paintings
Jinmyung Lee (Curator at Kansong Art and Culture Foundation)
A decade has passed since Jihyun Lee has debuted in the art world. During this period, the artist has been attracting the attention of the domestic and overseas art circles with her innovative choice of subject matter and bold stokes; one of the biggest fascinations in her works is the fact that she has been gradually improving the quality of her painting from the initial stylistic traits in the earlier years of the new millennium. Most importantly, Lee’s works maintain their pull due to our strong belief that there exists a realm to be found in her paintings, which differs from other attempts in her field. Then, how may we define this belief? The question rests on what painting fundamentally is, as the basic principle or even starting point of art on a personal level. Interestingly, Lee fuses contemporary concerns, social atmosphere, and questions regarding what the human being may be with this basic and macroscopic question.
Western paintings, for instance Francisco Goya’s The Third of May 1808 in Madrid or Caravaggio’s Ecce Homo have a closed-in, unified perspective. As we read personal style in such works, our focus naturally rests on how the given style may be differentiated from other aesthetic precedents. Also, we tend to migrate towards the interpretation of the painting’s theme, once the style has been unpacked. Here, once an interpretation is established, we finally begin to appreciate the atmosphere the work produces, and ponder on the personality of the artist. This process bears notable resemblance to profiling. Therefore, the viewers engage in a fierce game of push and pull, using the three critical factors of style, content and personal identity, the process of which produces profound intellectual and emotional satisfaction. However, a grave weakness of western paintings is that they compose a closed world consisting of a unified thought pattern. Whether unity can be achieved within a singular perspective and the oppressive atmosphere surrounding variegated interpretations often resulted in alienating the general public, as they elevated the status of painting from an object of appreciation to that of worship.
Lee’s thoughts on the territory and act of painting may have sprung from this very point. The first question she raises is that of multiple perspectives. She derives the aforementioned modalities by fusing and juxtaposing different spaces that do not overlap in terms of identities in a single frame. First, the artist inverts meaning by fusing and juxtaposing completely different spaces. This strategy not only creates the illusion of perspective, but also establishes the taste of painting in that it indiscriminately accepts differentiated timelines. The result is drastically different from the aura of collage or composite photographs, for the substance-ness of oil painting and her brush strokes are completed in the flow of time, and present a new dimension of meaning. For instance, let us look at a piece that is most often mentioned among Lee’s works including Colosseum+Dressing Table produced in 2006. Ancient Rome and contemporary boutique images can be hardly juxtaposed. This is not in order to create simple aesthetic pleasure or a refreshing atmosphere. It is evident that the Colosseum, as a space, is the compound of thousands of years. And the dressing table is clearly a symbol of contemporary consumerist life. The fact that the Colosseum is masculine whereas the dressing table is feminine does not bear significance here. In Ancient Rome, throughout the 17th century, the public in Spain saw politicians who often hosted festivals and recreational events as an ideal figure. In our time, we desire and appreciate the accumulation of personal possessions in privately owned spaces. These two phenomena are completely identical. Here, we find a clue to decrypting the artist’s world. The juxtaposition of the rights to ownership and public space is the fundamental condition of mankind as social animals, and the relationship between the two is unquestionably inevitable. Lee’s analysis of human life continuously unfolds like a panorama. The subject matters she frequently uses, such as cafes, urban streets, art museums, her studio, and the view outside of the window are by no means motifs used to produce aesthetic form. Rather, they are the embodiments of the Lee’s adventures, and her visual thoughts in her attempt to read the meaning of time and human life. Although times have changed and systems have evolved, people remained and will remain the same, regardless of whether they belong to Caesar’s rule, the time of Machiavelli, or our own temporal span. Here, the thought patterns are identical, in both the general mass and elites. Human beings, as noted in the Italian maxim that “people tend to have longer memories of their own material loss than the bereavement of their spouses,” are destined to shudder with desire and end up prostrated in exhaustion. Especially, in our time of globalism, when cultures are transposed and information streams are intertwined like weavings in carpet, artists must be confused as to what they should focus on and will for. This is a time of ambiguity. We can no longer blindly accept values or truths. The world now affirms and even recommends shivers of desire. Even art must become commercial and await the grant of funding, as was the case with the first craftsman in history. However, going against this trend, artists try to delve even deeper into the elemental. They try to look into the unchangeable essence of humanity through the thousands of years of history that we have recorded.
Japan’s writer Shiono Nanami introduced an interesting analysis. She hypothesizes that there is a self-sufficient society and another that is not; the former tries to expand and sustain its progress, whereas the latter attempts development through the exchange of goods. The former is a territory-based, and the latter is a hub-based society; the Roman Empire and the Yuan Empire are examples of the former, and the Venetian Republic the latter. Our contemporary society is a radically amplified version of the Venetian Republic; progress can only be possible through the process of endless movement based on the hubs. The properties of globalism, which cannot be easily defined, can be found in its tendency to destine mankind to endless movements. Meanwhile, these movements necessarily entail exchange. Exchanging one’s own possessions with another’s has become the norm, and the concentration and importance of exchange has exponentially increased. Therefore, the striking contrast between the space of what Lee tries to describe and the public space formulates a superb caricature of our own times. This is how I viewed her works leading up to 2008. Her vibrant debut solo exhibition in 2003, the exhibition at Gallery Hyundai in 2005, which was notable for its sensational diffusion, and Arario Gallery exhibition in 2008, which incorporates an epic story, are still fondly remembered by many.
Lee’s technique, sense of color and style have been unquestionably polished and honed in Korea. Art and aesthetics are based on the assumption that there exists an aesthetic mechanism that can be universally applied across the boundaries of race, nationality, class and gender. However, how we view Ando Hiroshige will differ from how the Japanese view him, and the assessment of Sajung Shim, who was a painter from the Joseon Dynasty period, in our eyes will not coincide with the assessment of Nigerians. The infinite intersections of different sensations and world perspectives must be understood as the very momentum of contemporary art. The artist currently lives and works in New York. While many artists who boast of natural-born sense and acquired taste flock to this city from all around the world, Lee attempts a new move in the final destination of art consumption that is New York. We can see an even stronger attachment to personalized style in her works. Whereas her earlier paintings were attempts arising out of power, that which tries to expand one’s sensation infinitely outwards, her current works display her intention to condense everything into her internal self. Why would this be? And unlike Jihye Hue’s past, in which she built a firm structure by overlaying layers of paint, Lee gradually restrains the quantitative emission of paint and the playful strokes of the brush, anticipating the complete product. In contrast to her past works, which were variations of reality and its distortion, her new works appear to be keeping the essence of the object within, and then projecting them on to the canvas all at once. Why is this? Lee must have engaged in countless discussions and conversations with Western curators, artists and patrons in New York. She seems to be developing greater knowledge of the world with the progression of time. We see a calm, gradual movement replacing energetic passion.
In light of the above observation, let us take a closer look at Lee’s new series ‘Fantasma’, which she has been working on since 2012. ‘Fantasma’ means ghosts, specters, the illusory or nonexistent in Spanish. The title must be the product of Lee’s meticulous preparation and consideration, as the term is most adequate as a reference to the indefinable or liminal. This series gives the impression that she is candidly and liberally expressing her feelings arising from daily life experiences. Indeed, the works are neither oil paintings nor drawings. Lee mixes techniques from her earlier days and the strengths of her later perspective series; we must question the meaning of her choice. First, we must take note of the reality of the artist, who is continuously on the move. The feelings and sentiments she experiences in the process of shuttling between two cultures would naturally be subtle and acute, unlike that of those who lack such mobility. In short, Lee is living in an “in-between,” unfixed state. Life in-between must be appreciated as a dual-experience between different cultures. Secondly, she goes through countless vibrations of experience between her mother’s and her own lives. Thirdly, she undergoes the liminality between herself as an established artist in Korea, and a novice in the art space of New York. Fourthly, going a step further into her world, we can understand this series as the result of a self-induced calling to transcend her previous capacity as a painter in her own, pre-established world. Therefore, we may conjecture that she has immersed herself in deconstructing her self-form by blending her initial drawings with completed painting style format. Here, there is the additional joy of seeing a new work of hers. There is a position called the “inbetweener” in the field of animation, which refers to those who insert several connecting cuts in between others in order to make the original drawings appear as if they are moving. I believe that Lee is an artist who connects invisible differences between two cultures and creates vibrancy. Moreover, I see her as an artist who fills in the deep chasm between the real and the virtual through the form of the ‘Fantasma’. Lee must have launched this project because she had perceived how becoming exceeds being in its importance.
As Karl Mannheim had asserted, there are “only ideologies and utopias” in the world. Ideologies are self-defensive discourses arising out of the established class’s wish to preserve the status-quo. Various values aesthetics, politics and sociology present could be seen as self-preservation mechanisms of those who occupy the upper strata of the system. That is what ideology is. In contrast, systematic attempts made by people who design their own new options in order to defy these ideologies are utopias. When the utopia acquires political force, it disappears and turns into a new ideology. This oscillating dialectic, we call history. The history of art is no more than a variation of this dialectic shuttling between utopia and ideology. Therefore, tradition and the Avant-guard can be replaced by ideology and utopia. Lee repositioned herself as a producer of ideology to the creator of utopia in New York. In the course of this change, she must have further reflected on and understood her native land and its cultural context. She must have desperately sought the existential reason to build her own art world, rather than art for art’s sake. Her works in 2012 and 2013 can be characterized by self-reflection instead of energetic emission, increased importation of Eastern sentimentality, and observations of her own self and the surrounding environment. Machiavelli once said, “life does not remember crybabies.” As an Asian, female artist, Lee must have faced even more difficulties. But she cannot sit back and lament. These days, I can clearly see how Lee is building new mechanisms and world views. Should we call life an eternal process of realizing one’s own self, we must sincerely look forward to Lee’s continued endeavor as an artist who creates based on the fabrics of life.
*This essay was written on the occasion of Jihyun Lee's exhibition,'Threshold' at DOOSAN Gallery Seoul in 2013